Saturday, November 5th, 2016, Soldier Field, Chicago Ireland 40 New Zealand 29 No surprise this. "To be in Chicago that week, with the atmosphere in the city with the Cubs winning the World Series for the first time was very special," says Best. "To experience something different, the All Blacks in Chicago, was just a great occasion, and to win obviously made it."
It was the ninth time Best had encountered the All Blacks in an Irish jersey, all but one of the previous eight having been starting at hooker, and all, of course, defeats. Time was, in his early days with Ireland, when he felt it would never happen.
“More recently we kept getting closer and closer. The one thing that did strike home was when Drico and Paulie retired having never beaten them. When guys like that retire never having done it, you think ‘maybe we’re not going to do it.’ That was the thought you had outside of the weeks leading into the games, but more recently we definitely felt we were getting closer, and it was almost like it was our mistakes that was stopping us from finishing them off as opposed to them outclassing us.”
A bit of an honour being captain too?
"It was yea. It's kind of strange, but it's probably not something until I retire and look back on the big highlights that I'll be able to think too much about it. We trained on the Tuesday morning after that in the lashing rain in Carton House so it was very much down to earth with a bump. There wasn't too much slapping on the back that day, so there wasn't." Saturday, March 21st, 2009 Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Wales 15 Ireland 17 No surprise either. Ireland's Grand Slam coronation. Best replaced Jerry Flannery with 12 minutes to go, as Ireland led 14-12, before a Stephen Jones drop goal put Wales ahead with five minutes remaining.
"I had to throw in the line-out that Rog eventually dropped the winning goal from. When I came off the pitch I remember thinking: 'Jeeze, imagine if we had lost that line-out," he recalls with a chuckle. "At the time you're so much in the moment that you don't think about it, and I'm sure Paddy Wallace has thought a lot about Stephen Jones having kicked the penalty he conceded with the last play. The same thoughts apply for me, that if we had lost that line-out we mightn't have had another crack at getting in front of them.
“Obviously Rog doesn’t let me forget I nearly got in the way of him hitting the drop goal. I keep saying to him that I didn’t think he was ever going to take it so somebody needed to step up, and I’d practised a few that season. But that was very, very tongue-in-cheek. Just being on the pitch at the final whistle, and seeing what it meant to so many people, and coming home to the reception (in Dublin), and the build-up to that game in Cardiff.
"Normally we'd have a bit of a wander around but you couldn't even leave the hotel for the two days beforehand, there were just so many people there for it. To create history there and to be on the pitch was memorable." Saturday, March 15th, 2014 Stade de France, Paris France 20 Ireland 22 Ireland secured their first Six Nations title since the 2009 Grand Slam in another nail-biting climax. Ireland twice came from behind, outscoring the home side by three tries to two, but France trimmed the lead to 22-20 before Best was replaced for the last nine minutes by Seán Cronin.
“For me and a lot of the Irish players, we’d had an horrific 2013 Six Nations and from an Irish point of view it wasn’t an overly successful Lions tour in the summer of 2013, and then to come back and win the way we did, having won once in Paris in 40 years (42 to be precise) all made winning the Championship there special. It was brilliant to have played in all the games in the Grand Slam and started one, but that Championship was particularly special for me because I started all five games and felt very much a part of the team.”
Best had also hurt his ribs a couple of day before the Italy game a week previously. "My rib was popping in and out a little bit. So I remember thinking 'just fight through this'. France had a really good lineout and I remember the really good calls Paulie was making. They're the little things you remember, and then the euphoria of when we'd done it. It had been '09 since we'd won anything, and not only was there the relief in winning it again, but to win it in an environment like the Stade de France, where I'd been so many times and got walloped four years before (33-10) and within 20 minutes the game was over, made it a great day." Saturday, February 24th, 2007 Croke Park, Dublin Ireland 43 England 13 More than just a game, and two weeks after a losing start to life in Croke Park against the French, courtesy of Vincent Clerc's late try, Ireland were in not so much must-win territory, as winning is the only option. "We'd probably not played as well as we'd like to have against France. In my time it was the first time that we hammered England. It didn't happen very happen. And then there was the build-up to playing the game in Croke Park."
"I suppose the big memory for me was the anthem, and the emotion surrounding the anthem, and the crowd, but more importantly down the line," says Best of the line of Irish players before kick-off. "You can't really look up and down the line, but you can sense how much emotion there is in it. The players were charged. I remember John Hayes, and "Flah" (Jerry Flannery) as well, with the tears, and what it meant to them.
“I remember the president, Mary McAleese, going to take her seat but couldn’t find her seat, and then when she found it this almighty cheer rippled around the ground. The noise was deafening for that one moment, and then obviously the result and the statement we made with our performance. It was a special one.”
It was also Best’s first full Six Nations, in which he started all five games.
"It felt like I was able to show to myself, in a competitive game, that I was capable of playing at that level." Saturday, March 19th, 2011 Aviva Stadium, Dublin Ireland 24 England 8 A talented Irish team had under-performed that season, barely winning away to Italy and Scotland, while losing at home to France and, a week earlier losing in Cardiff, before welcoming Martin Johnson's Grand Slam hunters on the tournament's final day.
"That was a big performance and probably gave us the confidence to go on and top the group in the World Cup in New Zealand later that year. The big stand-out memory I have of that day is the very first scrum of the game on our own 10-metre line in the middle of the pitch.
“This was a big rumbling English pack that had conquered all before them,” adds Best. “In that first scrum I wouldn’t say we destroyed them but very much had the upper hand. We won a penalty and the roar set the tone for the entire game, just the way we went about getting stuck into them.
"As usual with about 20 minutes to go a little bit of drizzle came down and the Fields of Athenry started. Everything that you remember growing up about being at Irish games was just encompassed in that day. It was very much a big physical performance by the forwards.
"It sort of summed us up around that time, because we were very inconsistent. We were capable of those but we were also capable of some of the rubbish we played earlier in that championship. But when we got those one-off games we could be very special." World Cup – Sunday, 11th October 2015 Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Ireland 24 France 9 With each team on three wins apiece, this was the pool decider, with the winners to play Argentina and the losers up against New Zealand in the quarter-finals in the same city a week later. Ireland had won ugly, 16-9, at London's Olympic Stadium a week before against Italy, but had lost all three previous World Cup meetings with Les Bleus.
“Italy had been a real tough one. We had not a lot to gain and a lot to lose, and we just got across the line. The big memories are leaving the hotel and just driving through Cardiff. The Millennium has an 80,000 capacity but it looked like 800,000 Irish in the city on the way from the hotel to the stadium. There was just green everywhere.
“On top of the atmosphere, with the roof closed, it sort of felt like it was a real statement by us. The injuries we suffered in that game proved costly in the quarter-final, but the way we just kept going at them and at them, and we scored late on.”
“But it was really just the atmosphere from the very off. It was like playing at home, except with 80,000 instead of 50,000.”